Reclaiming of London's Oxford Street from the American candy stores

The reclaiming of Oxford Street from the American candy stores: Small businesses are offered rent-free premises in London’s premier shopping district in bid to stop more sweet shops opening their doors

  • Council officials try to rid London’s iconic shopping street of the tacky shops 
  • £10million scheme aims to allow small business owners to open stores rent free 

Small businesses will have the chance to open rent-free shops on Oxford Street in units vacated by illicit candy stores amid a business rates evasion investigation.

Westminster City Council officials are trying to rid London’s iconic shopping street of the tacky shops, which have replaced household names and blighted the area.

Now, a new £10million scheme aims to transform the area by allowing small business owners to open stores rent free and lower their business rates by 70 per cent.

The plan, called ‘Meanwhile On: Oxford Street’ will offer nine units to businesses trying to launch their first store, with some expected to open next month.

The scheme, which is intended to prevent candy shops opening, is also offering the new occupants marketing help, business support and a fit-out of the new stores.

It comes as the council works with Trading Standards on an investigation into the sweet shops amid allegations some have evaded £8million worth of business rates.

The council has seized £1million worth of illegal and counterfeit goods from candy stores and souvenir shops on Oxford Street since operations began in late 2021. 

Two people stand outside an American candy store yesterday on London’s Oxford Street 

A raid on American candy stores on Oxford Street in October 2022 saw the council seize £215,000 worth of fake Gucci phone cases, vapes and counterfeit rucksacks in a crackdown

People walk past an American candy store near Piccadilly Circus in London yesterday 

The council seized a haul of fake Wonka chocolate bars worth £22,000 which were among counterfeit products totalling £100,000 seized from three Oxford Street stores in June 2022

MailOnline has led the charge to reclaim Oxford Street from nearly 30 American candy stores – and this website’s reporting today attracted praise from the council.

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Geoff Barraclough, the council’s cabinet member for planning and economic development, said: ‘MailOnline’s reporting has raised the profile the issue of dirty money highlighted by the US candy stores on Oxford Street.

‘The launch of Meanwhile On: Oxford Street will help future-proof the nation’s high street by offering innovative local businesses as alternatives to low quality occupiers and candy stores.’

In one set of raids on the shops in March, the council worked with Trading Standards and the Metropolitan Police to target two shops and confiscated 7,000 items with a total value of £145,000.

These included 2,381 vape pens which had double the UK limit of nicotine and over 15 times over the legal tank size – which were originally hidden from officers to avoid detection but were recovered from five suitcases displayed on the shopfloor.

Other seized goods included 1,723 counterfeit mobile phone cases, 1,602 unsafe charging leads, 372 power banks with no safety labelling or UK company details, 273 unsafe travel adapters and 182 counterfeit EarPods sold at different price points depending on who the customer was.

Now, as the council tries to rebuild the look at the high street with its new scheme, officials are ‘inviting applications from innovative, cutting-edge and up-and-coming brands who will offer something exciting and new’ to the street.

They added that the businesses can ‘use this high-profile space to bring their brand’s story to life, for example through new technologies such as virtual or augmented reality’.

Officials also said the businesses could bring ‘the production process to the customer by installing machines in store, opening visitor’s eyes to how clothes and other materials are made’.

The campaign is aimed at businesses looking to launch their first store or physical space, with selected brands getting a prime store location for an initial six-month period.

‘We need the new Economic Crime Bill to help clamp down on these loopholes and to provide Government agencies such as Companies House and HMRC with the powers and funding they need. 

Music retailer HMV is to reopen its flagship Oxford Street store (left, pictured in 2018), which was turned into an American candy outlet (right) after the firm’s departure in 2019

BEFORE and AFTER: ‘Candylicious London’ on Oxford Street (right) was a Schuh shop (left)

BEFORE and AFTER: A Coast store on Oxford Street (left) is now Kingdom of Sweets (right)

BEFORE and AFTER: ‘American Sweet Dreams’ (right) is on the site of a smaller Holland and Barrett next to an Ann Summers (left)

BEFORE and AFTER: A Boots store (left) used to occupy the space of a candy store (right)

These opportunities will be 100 per cent rent-free for brands, with a minimum reduction of business rates of 70 per cent.

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The stores will either be available for single occupancy or as a themed concept store shared between multiple brands.

Companies will also get support in design, management and marketing from independent retail consultants Someday Studios.

The council said the scheme is expected to support around 35 brands over three years, with the first store opening autumn 2023.

Mr Barraclough added: ‘The West End has recovered quickly from the pandemic but there are still too many vacant units and poor-quality occupants.

‘That’s why we’ve set up Meanwhile On: Oxford Street to help fill the gaps with upcoming brands showcasing their innovative new ideas.

‘I am excited to welcome new brands to one of the most famous streets in Europe, and support them with free rent, reduced business rates and help with promoting their businesses.’

Dee Corsi, chief executive of business group New West End Company, which is also involved in the project, said: ‘The West End is internationally recognised as one of the world’s most iconic retail and leisure destinations.

‘As a result, it has always been at the forefront for brands looking to engage with consumers in new and innovative ways – businesses that come here, do so to put their best foot forward.

‘The addition of pioneering brands, through the Meanwhile On programme, is just one of many indicators of the district’s wider growth, and we look forward to welcoming the successful applicants to the area.’

People pass souvenir shops in London’s West End yesterday amid plans to regenerate the area 

A Charles figurine is displayed alongside sweets in a souvenir shop on Oxford Street yesterday

People pass an American candy shop next to Boots on Oxford Street in London yesterday

People view items on sale at a souvenir shop on Oxford Street in London yesterday

People gather near souvenir, vape and candy shops in London’s Leicester Square yesterday

A worker adjusts the display in an American-style candy shop on Oxford Street yesterday

And James Watkins, head of policy at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told City AM: ‘We strongly back this great initiative by Westminster City Council to ensure that the capital’s premier shopping thoroughfare continues to flourish with innovative and forward-looking brands.

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‘During this cost of living crisis, it is critical that there are initiatives to help small businesses not just survive but thrive.’

In addition, a spokesman for Someday Studio told MailOnline: ‘Westminster City Council have appointed Someday Studios to deliver the three-year project.

‘Someday Studios is a retail placemaking consultancy that helps landlords transform underused spaces into vibrant destinations that support local start-ups and creatives, and was founded earlier this year by Aoife Byrne and Becky Jones.’

It comes after Brian Duffy, the chief executive of leading British retailer Watches of Switzerland, last week branded Oxford Street a ‘national embarrassment’.

He said there was ‘no question that more needs to be done’ to revive the area, adding: ‘Oxford Street is a problem. I would almost describe it as a bit of a national embarrassment.

‘In terms of importance, it’s probably the biggest victim of lockdown and what happened in retail, the demise of Arcadia group and department stores like Debenhams.’

Watches of Switzerland owns a showroom on Oxford Street across the road from department store Selfridges. Mr Duffy said action should be taken to bring a ‘higher standard’ of businesses to the area.

On nearby Regent Street – which is owned by the Crown Estate – there has been ‘more aggressive and successful landlord behaviour’, he said.

Although Oxford Street is still ‘hugely popular’, its range of stores is ‘not optimising the status of the street and traffic’, Mr Duffy added.

Topshop’s flagship store near Oxford Circus station closed in early 2021 after the demise of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia retail empire.

Tourists pass a souvenir shop in Leicester Square in London’s West End yesterday 

A woman passes a snack and vape shop near Piccadilly Circus in London yesterday

A woman tries on a pair of glasses in a souvenir shop in London’s Leicester Square yesterday

People visit a souvenir shop on Oxford Street in London yesterday as the probe continues

A picture of the late Queen Elizabeth II on a souvenir shop in Leicester Square yesterday 

Sweets are displayed in a candy shop on Oxford Street in London’s West End yesterday

House of Fraser’s department store also shut shop in January 2022 after more than a century at the location. 

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Some big names are set to move into the area soon – Ikea will open up at the former Topshop site while HMV will reopen its old flagship store on Oxford Street after a four-year absence later this year.

Mr Duffy is not the first leading retail chief to lambast the state of Oxford Street.

In April, Marks & Spencer boss Stuart Machin said London was losing its competitive edge to rival cities.

Mr Machin blamed a government move to axe VAT-free shopping and a ‘proliferation of tacky candy stores’.

He said: ‘The high street which is meant to be the jewel in London’s crown today is a national embarrassment, with a proliferation of tacky candy stores, antisocial behaviour and footfall remaining in the doldrums, 11 per cent down on pre-pandemic levels.’

He added: ‘It pains me to see our great city like this. For too long now it has been on life support.’

Oxford Street will also be given a facelift from next autumn with plans to inject £100million into pedestrian access, greenery and better lighting.

Work on the project, which is a joint effort between the council and New West End Company, is expected to finish in spring 2026.

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